Stone Barrington stood under the portico of the Hay-Adams Hotel, in Washington, D.C., and shivered. It was January 20, and he was dressed in a dark blue pinstripe suit, a double-breasted cashmere overcoat, a black cashmere scarf, and a soft, dark blue fedora. His hands were crammed into soft black leather gloves with a cashmere lining, yet, after only three minutes of this, he was already freezing. A thermometer across the street read 22 degrees Fahrenheit.
A black SUV with darkened windows drove under the portico, and the doorman conversed briefly with the driver, then beckoned Stone. Another doorman opened the nearest door for him, and he slid into the warm interior.
"Mr. Barrington?" the driver asked.
"May I see your White House badge, please?"
Stone dug his way past the scarf and felt for the plastic badge on the silk tape that hung around his neck, then held it up so the driver could compare the face on the badge with the man holding it.
"Thank you, sir. Normally, it's a very short drive, but it may take us a little longer today. Lots of traffic."
It took twelve minutes before someone opened the rear door and Stone hurried through the next portico. His outer garments and hat were taken from him, and he was escorted to an elevator, which disgorged him onto the upstairs floor. A Secret Service agent opened the door to the family quarters and allowed him to enter. He knew the way.
He found the president of the United States, the former president of the United States, and the next president of the United States sitting before the fireplace, sipping from teacups.
"Come in, Stone, and have tea," Katharine Rule Lee said. "It's the custom, on Inauguration Day, for the outgoing president to have the incoming president for tea, prior to the ceremony."
Stone shook Will Lee's hand and kissed Holly Barker on the cheek, then asked for Earl Grey, with lemon and a carcinogen. The president poured.
"I understand it's a bit chilly outside," Will said.
"I recommend outer clothing made to Antarctic standards," Stone replied.
"Typical," Will replied, "on Inauguration Day. How's the crowd?"
"I've only seen an aerial view on television," Stone said, "but the ground under the crowd was not visible."
"Oh, good. The networks delight in comparing the crowd size to the last president's."
Stone was only halfway thawed before they were summoned to depart. In the reception hall downstairs, his outer clothing was returned to him, and he was helped into it. Taking the jump seat beside Will in the presidential limousine, Stone marveled at the foot-thick doors, the three-inch-thick window glass, and the absolute silence inside. As soon as the women's garments could be arranged in the rear seat, they were off.
"The Bacchettis will be seated with us," Kate said. "I'm told we'll have electric blankets for our laps."
The Bacchettis were Stone's closest friends, he the police commissioner of New York City and she the COO of Strategic Services, the world's second-largest security company. Stone and Dino had been partners as detectives on the NYPD, when everybody was younger.
Only Kate and Will managed to make conversation: Holly was as silent as a rock, and Stone followed her lead. Holly slowly leafed through a document, her speech, in a leather-bound folder, her lips moving a little.
Amazingly, given the temperature, the streets on the way to the Capitol were lined with the public, six-deep. They were there to see the first female president succeeded by the second such. Crowd noise could be heard dimly through the thick glass, and Holly remembered to smile and wave. Stone sat perfectly still, as no one had come out in the freezing cold to see him.
As they dismounted from the tanklike vehicle, a band somewhere nearby began to play ÒHail to the ChiefÓ at the sight of Kate. They were led up some stairs to a row of seats behind the podium, where the Bacchettis awaited, along with the promised warm blankets. The crowd size lived up to the aerial photographs.
A clergyman intoned a prayer that was more like a speech, then the chief justice of the Supreme Court, a small woman, took the podium and held out a beckoning hand to the president-elect. Holly, dressed in a green suit that set off her red hair, took the oath, then addressed the crowd.
Stone didn't bother to listen, since he had read every draft of the speech during the past month. Instead, he searched the crowed in front of him, since he couldn't turn and look at those behind him. He spotted only one familiar face, and before he could remember the name, the speech ended, and Holly was given a very appropriate standing ovation. Then they slowly followed her back to the car, as she shook every hand along the path.
Holly was late to the White House luncheon given to honor her, because she wanted to sign a dozen executive orders and her appointment letters to her cabinet. She may have been, she said, the first president to have named them all before the inauguration.
After lunch, back in the family quarters, Holly gave Stone his first real kiss of the day, and it was welcome.
"Now," she said. "I have to take a nap, if possible, and then dress for the balls tonight. You should do the same, then come back here in the car provided."
"I shall do so," Stone said, kissing her again, then departed for the Hay-Adams. He had about four hours to get that done.
Stone inserted the key card into the lock on his suiteÕs door, and let himself in. He hung his coat and hat in the closet by the door, then turned and walked from the vestibule into the living room of his suite. There, sprawled before him on the floor, lit by the sunlight streaming into the room, lay a female, fully dressed and, when he put his fingers to her throat, apparently dead.
"Good God, Stone!" a voice behind him said.
He turned and looked at Dino, who had spoken, and his wife.
"What have you done?" Viv asked.
"Don't point that thing at me!" Stone said, throwing up his hands in mock terror.
Viv walked over to the woman and felt for her pulse. "Nonresponsive," she said, "and she's cool to the touch."
Stone walked to the desk and picked up the telephone.
"Stop!!!" Dino yelled. "Don't touch that!"
"I was going to call 911."
"Do you want the place flooded with EMTs and cops, or do want this handled discretely, so you won't have to answer a lot of questions at each inaugural ball?"
"Your way," Stone said.
Dino looked up a number on his iPhone and called it. "This is Dino Bacchetti," he said. "Urgent." He tapped his foot impatiently while he waited. "Deb, Dino. Fine, you? Good. I'm at the scene of a high-profile apparent homicide that needs to be handled discretely. At the Hay-Adams. In my suite, which Viv and I share with Stone Barrington. None of us. We returned from the inauguration to find her on the floor of our living room. Unknown to any of us. Undetermined, pending the arrival of the ME." He gave her the suite number. "Send them up no more than two at a time, a minute or two apart. Have the gurney brought up on the service elevator; it's a few steps away. You don't have to, but it couldn't hurt. See you shortly." He hung up. "That was Deborah Myers, chief of the Washington, D.C., police department. She's coming herself with others. Viv, will you stand by the door and admit people with the proper IDs? No maids or other hotel employees. Stone, you come with me."
They went into Stone's bedroom and Dino closed the door. "Tell me what you didn't tell me when we walked in."
"Nothing," Stone replied.
"If there's anything else I should know, tell me now."
"I'd be happy to do that, Dino, if there were anything. This isn't my first homicide, remember?" They had worked more than a hundred together on the NYPD.
They heard the doorbell ring and went back into the living room. A woman in civvies was hugging Viv, while a police sergeant, about six feet five, built like a pro linebacker, and very handsome, stood there and looked around the room for threats.
Stone and Myers were introduced, and he was impressed.
"Okay," she said to Stone, conversationally, "tell me your story."
"I don't have a story, so I'll just give you the facts." He did so.
"Have you ever fucked her?" Myers asked.
"I'd have to see her naked, to tell you that."
"Don't be a smart-ass, Stone. Have you ever fucked her?"
"Not that I recall," he said.
"Have you ever so much as met her?"
"Not that I recall. It's been a long time since I've met a lot of people lying dead in hotel suites."
"Stone and I were partners two hundred years ago," Dino said. "We worked homicide."
Another knock at the door, and Viv admitted two men: an impossibly youthful man, carrying a satchel, and a middle-aged one wearing a ski parka over surgical scrubs.
"I assume the victim is the horizontal one," the man said.
Deb Myers smirked at him. "Dr. Steinberg, Dino Bacchetti, commissioner NYPD, his wife, Vivian, and Stone Barrington, who tripped over the body."
"Not quite," Stone said, shaking the man's hand.
Steinberg knelt beside the body, felt for a pulse at throat and wrist, listened to her chest, then held a small mirror under her nose, to see if it fogged. He produced an anal thermometer and did his work, then he produced a small recorder. "Victim is a white female, aged forty to fifty, expensively dressed with corresponding jewelry. She's unresponsive and presumed deceased. Preliminary cause of death, strangulation. Time of death between one pm and three pm."
Another knock at the door. This time it was two detectives, both thirtyish.
"Just in time, gentlemen," Steinberg said. "She's dead. Do your thing."
Forty minutes later, the detectives had questioned everybody and made way for a crime scene investigator, who worked the scene. ÒPreliminary observation,Ó he said, Òshe entered the suite either by admission or with a key, walked across the living room and met the assailant, who strangled her to death. She probably knew him, since her blouse was pulled out of her skirt and a couple of buttons were undone.Ó
He left, right behind the corpse, and so did everybody else, but Stone, the Bacchettis, Deb Myers, and Valentino, which was how Stone had come to think of the large policeman.
"Shall I wait outside the door, Chief?" Valentino asked her.
"No, Rocco, you'd just attract too much attention," Myers replied. "Just sit down over there, while these nice people buy me a drink." She collapsed on a sofa. "Scotch, please," she said to nobody in particular. "I'm officially off duty now, if anybody cares."
Stone dealt with booze for everybody, then sat down himself. "Man oh man," Myers said, taking a swig. "As if I didn't have enough to do today. Now I have to go home and dress for four balls."
"I'm going to four, too," Stone said, "but I'm only dressing for one."
"Question, Chief," Stone said. "Do you know the victim?"
She looked at him sharply. "How did you know that?"
"Something in the way you dealt with her. Dino taught me that."
"She's Patricia Clark, Pat. Her husband is Donald-Don-big business guy, who's about to be the new secretary of commerce."
"I hope you won't need to tell that to our new president before tomorrow morning. It might ruin her evening."
"Well, I'm going to have to tell the victim's husband, and he might want to tell the boss. I'll suggest he call in sick."
"Is he a suspect?" Stone asked.
"They were planning a divorce, just as soon as he was confirmed by the Senate. That is conveniently unnecessary, now."
"Does anybody here know Don Clark?" Deb asked. Heads were shaken.
"Then what was his wife doing in your hotel suite? Who has keys?"
"The three of us. Ah, one other," Stone said. "I think you can exclude her from your investigation, since I left her to come here, and she couldn't have gotten here first."
"Name?" Myers asked.
"For the present, unavailable," Stone said.
"Where were you, Stone, between one and three?"
"Having tea at the White House with the Lees, then at the inauguration."
She picked up her large handbag, rummaged through it and came out with an envelope, which held a photograph. She handed it to him. "See anybody you know?" She asked.
Stone looked at the photograph of Holly at the podium, delivering her address. Over her shoulder, he could see himself. He held it up. "That's me."
"How about the two people right behind you?"
Stone looked at them. "I don't know them, so this is just a guess: Donald and Patricia Clark?"
"I was never introduced to them, and I didn't see them at the luncheon for, among others, the new cabinet, at the White House."
"You expect me to believe that?" Deb asked.
"I expect you to, once you've run down the speech and figured out the exact time this was taken."
"Okay, Stone. You're no longer a suspect. Still, there's something you're not telling me."
Dino spoke. "You're right. The name he has refused to speak is that of our new president. He's her date for today and tonight."
"Oh," Deb said, and polished off her drink.
"Well, Deb," Stone said. "If you'll excuse me, I think I'll have a nap. I'd be grateful if you'd try not to ruin the president's evening."
"I'll see what I can do," Deb said, rising. In a moment, she was gone, followed closely by Valentino.
Stone, Viv, and Dino were driven to the White House, where they were put through the entry drill again, then taken up to the family quarters. They were seated in front of the fireplace while a butler took their drink orders.
Holly swept into the room as they took their first sip, and they were all on their feet.
"Oh, sit down," Holly said, taking a seat next to Stone. "It's just us."
"You'd better get used to it," Stone said. "It's going to happen every time you walk into a room, for the rest of your life."
"I hate it when you're right," she said, accepting delivery of her drink. "This one's going to have to last for the first half of the evening," she said, raising her glass. "I'm going to have to remain semi-sober, which is a fine point somewhere between being charming and being an embarrassment."